By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 18, 2008
BEIJING, Jan. 17 -- China demanded Thursday that the United States do more to prevent Taiwan from holding a referendum that China views as a step toward independence, but a senior U.S. official said Washington has already done all it can to get the vote called off.
The exchange, between Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and visiting Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, dramatized the central role Taiwan plays in relations between China and the United States. In particular, China in recent years has come to count on the Bush administration to rein in the combative and independence-minded Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian.
The referendum will ask voters whether the government should apply for membership in the United Nations under the name Taiwan instead of its long-standing official name, the Republic of China. The vote is destined to have no practical effect; the United Nations has made it clear Taiwan will not be admitted, under any name, because it is not recognized as a legally independent country by the five permanent members of the Security Council.
But China has objected strongly, contending that the referendum was designed by Chen to bestow an aura of legality on his aspirations to change the island's name and underline its autonomy.
People's Daily, the official Communist Party propaganda organ, reported on its Web site Thursday that Yang brought up the issue in a meeting Wednesday evening with Negroponte, suggesting that the United States has not brought enough pressure to bear on Chen over the planned referendum.
"Under the current situation, to more firmly oppose the Taiwan authorities' separatist activities, such as the U.N. membership referendum, is of crucial importance to safeguarding peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and the overall situation of China-U.S. relations," Yang was quoted as saying.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who also met with Negroponte, urged that the United States deal with the referendum issue "properly," but without specifically saying more needed to be done. In that light, it was unclear whether Yang's formulation was a purposeful ratcheting up of China's demand for U.S. intervention.
Negroponte, during a news conference later Thursday, noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the referendum a "mistake" and that the Bush administration views it as "provocative." Aside from condemning it in such official statements, there is not much the Bush administration can do, he said.
"All we can do is express our view," he said. "We'll have to see what effect that will have."
Brushing aside the U.S. criticism, Chen has scheduled the referendum to accompany the self-ruled island's presidential election March 22. He suggested in a recent interview that the U.S. objections represent a decision by the Bush administration to cater to Chinese wishes, rather than a calculation of America's interests.
China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory, has vowed to use force if necessary to block any move toward formal independence. But it has not made clear precisely what moves could lead to trouble.
Negroponte, who is here for regular U.S.-China strategic talks, said Taiwan would be an important part of his discussions because it is a "core issue" for China. But he suggested the situation might seem less urgent after March 22, when chances are high the referendum will not be approved. Analysts in Taiwan said the outcome of Saturday's legislative elections, in which two other referendums got only a quarter of the vote, showed that the island's voters had no appetite for the March referendum.
In addition, the elections handed an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Yuan to the opposition Nationalist Party. That was seen as a harbinger of victory for the Nationalist candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, to replace Chen. Ma has called for improving relations with the mainland.